Looking beyond Jefferson's job? Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

“Could you be looking at the line-up for 2016?”

That’s what someone replied to me on Twitter on Friday morning, February 24, after I had sent out word I was covering a panel at the Newseum in Washington featuring Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

The forum was sponsored by Politico and the two governors who are considered among their parties’ brightest stars for tomorrow did not disappoint.

Whether the issue was taxes (O’Malley said they need to be on the table, while McDonnell spoke proudly of cutting taxes in his state), education (O’Malley wants to invest more tax dollars in education, McDonnell made the case for greater local oversight of public schools), or spending (O’Malley spoke of “reprioritzing spending,” McDonnell spoke forcefully of cutting spending), the two governors did not disappoint their audience as forceful advocates for their different stands.

In wasn’t long before they started to mix it up. O’Malley warned of what would happen if Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. Pointing to states in which the GOP holds the governorship as well as both houses of the legislature, the Democrat spoke of the Republican agendas’ moving states to the right.

“[It’s about] outlawing women’s reproductive rights,” he said, and, referring to embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “outlawing unions, said, what the hell does it have to do with creating jobs?”

As an example of what he considered the GOP’s preoccupation with a social agenda, O’Malley cited recent controversy in neighboring Virginia over legislation requiring ultrasounds to be performed before any abortion takes place and said he got the impression from area newspapers that “that was all they were interested in Virginia.”

McDonnell sat calmly, listened to his opposite number, and—after voicing his not-so-high opinion of news coverage in the Washington, D.C. area—remarked: “I thought all they were interested in in Maryland was raising taxes and same sex marriage.”

The Virginian, to use a phrase, brought the house down.

McDonnell went on to point out that he has proposed more than 150 bills in the current session of the Virginia General Assembly and none of them were related to social issues. But, he quickly added, “I am a pro-life governor” and “what you believe is important.” Regarding the same sex marriage proposal that O’Malley publicly championed and then signed into law, McDonnell simply said that voters in the Old Dominion State spoke on this in a statewide referendum two years ago saying clearly that marriage was a union between a man and a woman.

It was quite obvious from the very revealing morning session why so many pundits and pols quickly bring up these two Irish-Catholic governors with roots in County Mayo as key players in the futures of the two major parties. And it was also quite clear to me why the 56-year-old McDonnell is spoken increasingly of as a Republican vice presidential candidate with his presidential favorite Mitt Romney. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are Virginia residents and would thus forfeit the state’s 13 electoral votes if they tapped McDonnell.

Ready for national office

Even a cursory glance at Bob McDonnell’s resume can reassure skeptics that he is ready for national office. A onetime high school football star in Northern Virginia who went on to graduate from Notre Dame, McDonnell served as a medical supply officer in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves. He also earned a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University by going nights and law and public policy degrees from Virginia’s Regent University.

After 14 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, McDonnell eked out election as state attorney general by 323 votes in ’05. In the race for governor four years later, he again faced the same Democrat that he had defeated for attorney general and took the statehouse by a landslide. The two other statewide constitutional offices up for election that year were handily won by Republicans and, by 2011, both the state senate and House of Delegates were in Republican hands.

McDonnell and wife Maureen have five children, including daughter Jeanine who is serving in the Army (including a stint in Iraq) and twin sons who are star athletes at the University of Virginia.

When I asked McDonnell whether he felt Virginia would go Republican in 2012 four years after it gave its electoral votes to Barack Obama and whether he would consider becoming the Republican vice presidential candidate, he replied without hesitation that his state would go back to being Republican. He noted the gains the GOP has made since ’08, including his own leading a statewide sweep, the pickup of three U.S. House seats, and capture of the state legislature.

And Obama now has a record to defend, McDonnell noted. In the Virginian’s eyes, “He’s a phenomenal campaigner and a bad president.”

But would he accept the second slot on the ticket with Romney or another candidate?

“I was going to skip that one,” he chuckled, “I’m busy being governor, and it really means a lot to me that I hold the same job held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. And, look, it’s not my call.”

But, McDonnell also left the door slightly ajar, as he told me: “If the leader of your party calls and asks you to do something, of course you think about it.”

We discussed Roman Catholic voters and how Obama carried the votes of America’s largest single religious faith in ’08. Could putting a Roman Catholic such as McDonnell on the ticket enhance Republican appeal to Roman Catholic voters.

“It’s a misnomer to speak of the ‘Roman Catholic vote,’” he told me, “There’s no monolithic Roman Catholic vote because there are different kinds of Catholics. Look at Gov. O’Malley and me, for example. So there has been a split among Catholic voters in the past and there will be one in the future.”

Our conversation then segued into a discussion of the administration’s controversial policy requiring faith-based hospitals and other health providers to cover contraceptives for employees, even when the policy poses a contradiction with religious beliefs. In McDonnell’s words, “This president’s intrusive policies into religious freedom are contrary to the dictates of conscience and they are contrary to the tradition of religious freedom in this country articulated more than 200 years ago by Thomas Jefferson.”

Looking ahead to 2016

Throughout the weekend, Bob McDonnell was a clear presence at the NGA meeting at Washington, D.C.’s J.W. Marriott Hotel

McDonnell is readily available for reporters and takes questions on just about every subject. He makes it clear that the states’ chief executives will have to make “tough decisions” regarding their budgets, that current economic unease means “we cannot afford to do everything we have done before.” He also makes it clear, in contrast to O’Malley, that raising taxes is not the answer he is looking for or will consider.

“My predecessor [former Democratic Gov. and present Democratic Senate hopeful Tim Kaine] oversaw a $2.8 billion tax increase,” says McDonnell, proudly adding that “we ended his tax increase” and made spending cuts of more than $6.8 billion. And as a result, “we have an atmosphere favoring the creation of private sector jobs and we have invested $4.8 billion in transportation and $230 million in higher education.”

When we discussed Medicaid obligations that he considers “the Number One debt driver,” I asked McDonnell if he felt the administration would consider granting waivers and the much-sought greater flexibility to the states to grapple with the Medicaid rolls.

“I doubt it,” shot back the RGA chairman. But, like Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi’s Phil Bryant, McDonnell made it clear he was going to press the issue—hard.

A Romney-McDonnell ticket in 2012? It’s probably not in the cards. But what is clearly in the cards for 2016 and beyond is Bob McDonnell as a major player for his party on the national stage.

During his session with Maryland’s O’Malley, McDonnell said tongue-in-cheek he was staying in shape. He does so, he explained, “by jogging, working out, and watching Fox News.”

This is the third in a series of one-on-one interviews with vice presidential contenders. Next week, John Gizzi profiles Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.